By Marc Shoffman | Tuesday, January 8th 2019
BT and Virgin are two heavyweights of the broadband world. They are among the most popular providers in the UK and operate on separate networks. Virgin is renowned for its insanely fast speeds, but BT is more widely available and also offers faster speeds than its competitors. So how do you choose between them?
We've weighed up how the pair compare when it comes to speed, packages, customer service and technology to help you decide which is right for your household.
With the introduction of the Advertising Standards Authority ruling, broadband providers can now only advertise speeds that are available to at least 50 per cent of their customers, and as a result, some different, considerably lower, numbers have appeared. BT now offers 10Mbps with its standard Broadband, 36Mbps with its Superfast Fibre Essential, 50Mbps with its Superfast Fibre (previously known as BT Infinity 1) and 67Mbps for Superfast Fibre 2 (previously BT Infinity 2).
In comparison, where Virgin's speeds were previously way faster than those of BT, they are now even faster. This is because, for 50 per cent of Virgin's customers, the speeds they receive are actually faster than those advertised. Virgin is able to offer these speeds because it has its own cabling network, rather than relying on Openreach. This lets it set its own speed targets. You can get 50Mbps, 100Mbps, 200Mbps and even 350Mbps with Virgin Media, setting it miles apart from all other broadband providers in terms of speed.
You can’t beat Virgin when it comes to speed. That isn’t to say 10Mbps or even 36Mbps isn’t enough. Both are fine for everyday use and you will only really need 100Mbps or more when you are making big demands on the network such as if several people are streaming content at the same time or if you want to get that new Xbox game downloaded in double-quick time.
Virgin gets the points on this one as its basic speed of up to 50Mbps is still faster than anyone else's entry-level speed. Read our guide on what you can do with a 50Mbps connection to see if it's the best speed for you. It is worth remembering that these are only advertised speeds and as Virgin has its own network it will only offer you the level it thinks it can provide based on where you live. Having said that, in general, Virgin Media's speeds are very close to those advertised, if not faster.
You can get BT broadband on five different packages. It starts with Broadband offering 10Mbps download speed. Next up is Superfast Fibre Essential with speeds averaging 36Mbps but with a 30GB usage allowance. Another step up is Superfast Fibre with an average speed of 50Mbps, then there is Superfast Fibre 2, which comes with 67Mb. The premium package is the new Superfast Fibre Plus. This also comes with 67Mbps and an array of BT Plus benefits, including double data for customers with a BT Mobile Plus account.
All BT's deals are unlimited and come with line rental and unlimited UK weekend calls to 01, 02, 03, 0845 and 0870 numbers (excluding the Channel Islands) included, as well as access to more than five million wi-fi hotspots. All contracts are for an 18-month period.
Virgin is more flexible on its contracts. It will only lock you in for 12 months, plus it offers a 30-day rolling option that you can cancel within 30 days. All Virgin’s packages come with fibre broadband and start with VIVID 50, with average speeds of 54Mbps. You can double that to VIVID 100 or go double again with VIVID 200 fibre broadband. Its fastest speed is up to 350Mbps on VIVID 350 fibre broadband, which has an average speed of 362Mbps.
All Virgin's broadband packages are unlimited and you also have a choice whether or not to include a phone line in your package. If you go with a package with the phone line included, you will get inclusive weekend calls to UK landline, Virgin Mobile numbers, plus inclusive weekend minutes to 0870 numbers.
Virgin is going ahead of the crowd again by producing flexibility into packages. You can choose to get broadband-only with Virgin if you no longer need a phone line or want to pay line rental for a landline you will never use. Virgin also offers shorter contracts and is even more flexible with its rolling deals. BT and others could learn some lessons here.
BT has a pretty poor track record when it comes to customer service. It is available to hear concerns 24 hours a day and seven days a week on the phone and offers live chat online. It must be pretty busy too as customers face an average call waiting time of just under 4 minutes, which is above the industry average of 2 minutes and 51 seconds.
In comparison, Virgin Media users wait 1 minute and 39 seconds on average to get a call answered. It offers live chat online between 8am and 8pm Monday to Saturday and you can call them 7 days a week between 8am and 10pm.
Virgin customers tend to be more satisfied. It had an overall satisfaction rating of 91% among users as of 2016, according to Ofcom statistics. BT had a rating of 84%.
Both are pretty neck-and-neck when it comes to how satisfied users are with complaints handling, with 56% for BT and 54% for Virgin.
No-one rings up their broadband provider for a casual chat. So, when you do ring, you want your call answered quickly and the problem dealt with appropriately.
Virgin’s customer services may not be open as long as BT’s, but when they are it seems that issues are dealt with faster and users seem to have a better experience of the service overall.
If you sign up to BT’s standard broadband, you will be sent its basic Home Hub. This provides a standard 5GHz and 2.4GHz channels plus four ethernet ports and a USB point. If you want a more sparkly router, then you need to be a fibre broadband customer.
These users will get a Smart Hub, which brandishes seven antennas to find the best frequencies for the top speeds and will also cope with faster speeds in the future. The BT Smart Hub also constantly monitors your internet connection and if it spots a problem, it will quietly reboot and make a fresh connection.
In contrast, Virgin doesn’t distinguish between its broadband customers. Everyone gets its shiny Virgin Media Hub 3.0, which comes with four ethernet cables and a 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless channels. It also has five internal antennas which should help boost your speeds.
No-one likes to feel like their custom is not important. BT risks offending those using its lower speeds by giving them an inferior router to its Smart Hub. In comparison, Virgin treats everyone the same.
Both offer powerful technology, but Virgin can couple its hi-tech router with faster speeds and a universal service so deserves the accolades for this one.
BT provides virus protection with all its packages. BT Virus Protect covers two devices as standard, except Superfast Fibre 2 which allows 15 devices to be protected.
You also get parental controls and BT Cloud, which gives you a whopping 200GB free storage with Broadband and Superfast Fibre and an even bigger 1TB on Superfast Fibre 2 (previously BT Infinity 2).
BT occasionally offers juicy incentives such as free BT Sport or cashback when signing up, so it is worth keeping your eye on the latest BT deals. Customers will also get free access to five million BT Wi-fi hotspots around the UK.
Virgin Media offers similar extras. You will get virus protection using F-Secure on up to five devices and parental controls using Web Safe. There is Virgin Media WiFi for use at available hotspots on the move, and it is also available inside London Underground stations.
Both are pretty tied on this one. You get the usual virus protection and parental controls as well as access to public wi-fi. BT can go one better by offering storage and if you happen to snap up a deal offering free BT Sport on its app. BT Wi-fi is also far more widely available than Virgin's.
Virgin wins by a mile on speed and customer service, which are two of the most important factors when it comes to choosing a broadband provider. BT has decent technology and some great extras, but if you want fast and reliable broadband, Virgin may be the way to go.